Petite Suite. The name – it suggests the Baroque era. Georg Friedrich Händel composed a few suites for the harpsichord. The music – it evokes a modern jazz piece for solo piano. Keith Jarrett’s compositions come to my mind. Actually, this piece borrows from many sides. In 1947, the Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote this piece while he was still studying at the Milan Conservatory. The work saw its premiere a year later in Como.
Neo-Classicism in Italy
The “Petite Suite” follows the neo-Classical style then prominent in Italy, and Berio borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach (Gigue), Claude Debussy (Air I), Sergei Prokofiev (Air II) and Igor Stravinsky (the Prelude), who borrowed himself from Bach. Stravinsky had impressed Berio from the beginning of his career on. But the “Petite Suite” is more than just a copy-paste exercise of an ambitious student. It is the humourous and enchanting reverence of a modern composer to past masters, his predecessors. 20 minutes of suspended piano music, five movements named in the Baroque fashion, a lovely miniature, presented by the pianist David Arden.
Embracing the Neue Musik
Berio was 23 years old when he wrote this piece and he was only at the beginning of a steep learning curve. In the 50s, he went to the United States to study with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood. This sparked his interest in serialism*. Back in Europe, in Darmstadt, he met Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Mauricio Kagel. Darmstadt was one of the European centres of the Neue Musik and Berio’s exposure to new sounds and sound-making techniques triggered his interest in electronic music. In the 70s and 80s he called the shots at the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris, founded by Boulez, the French centre of contemporary classical music.
Irregularity and tension
The Prelude reminds me of raindrops falling at an irregular rhythm, subject to gusting winds. Air I is a subdued something, calm, but not reassuring, like a resting spring waiting to be released. The Gavotte is exactly that: a gavotte, a dance, but again inhibited and mitigated by a phrasing that has nothing in common with the Baroque style. Air II has a definite modern jazz ring, the nice melody that the right hand plays is occasionally drowned by a heavy, exaggerated left hand. The Gigue finally would have caused nightmares to Bach, a nervous movement, full of tension, always on alert.
Is this post a listening recommendation? Absolutely. Discovering new worlds and hidden treasures is always an adventure. And in a few days I will present another suite merging different styles that will allow you to see how music has evolved in the time span of 40 years.
© Charles Thibo